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In classical antiquity, the grain supply to the city of Rome could not be met entirely from the surrounding countryside, which was taken up by the villas and parks of the aristocracy and which produced mainly fruit, vegetables and other perishable goods. The city therefore became increasingly reliant on grain supplies from other parts of Italy, notably Campania, and from elsewhere in the empire, particularly the provinces of Sicily, North Africa and Egypt. These regions were capable of shipping adequate grain for the population of the capital amounting to 60 million modii (540 million litres / 540,000 tonnes or 135 million gallons / 16.8 million bushels) annually, according to some sources. These provinces and the shipping lanes that connected them with Ostia and other important ports thus gained great strategic importance. Whoever controlled the grain supply had an important measure of control over the city of Rome.
Shipping and milling
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The widespread use of water mills or grain crushers in Italy is mentioned in passing by Pliny the Elder in 79 AD. A sequence of water mills was established at the terminus of the highest Roman aqueduct, the Aqua Traiana in the second century AD by the emperor Trajan. Traces of the water channels and equipment have been excavated on the Janiculum. Protecting this valuable industrial complex was important, as attested by the actions of Belisarius in the Siege of Rome (537–538) when the city was besieged by the Ostrogoths. When the water supply to the aqueduct was cut off, he built a bridge of boats across the Tiber and used floating paddle mills to crush the grain, and so kept the supply of bread intact.
The complex of mills bear parallels with a similar complex at Barbegal in southern Gaul built in the first century AD, although the Barbegal mills have not been built upon at later times, and are thus extremely well preserved.
During the Principate, the surrounding Italian countryside only provided ten percent of the total grain imports into Rome. The majority of her grain came from North Africa and Egypt. Several assessments have been made toward the total amount of grain that Rome imported from these two regions. Peter Garnsey combines the accounts of the author of the fourth-century Epitome that 20 million modii of wheat came from Egypt and Josephus' statement in the mid-first century AD that North Africa provided twice the export of Egypt and that it supplied Rome eight months of the year and Egypt supplied the other four, leaving a total of 60 million modii imported to Rome. Garnsey finds this number too high as this works out to 400,000 tons but only 200,000 tonnes was required for Augustus' first grain dole. G.E. Rickman estimated that the total requirements of wheat for a population of Rome, given an average diet of 3,000 calories would require 40 million modii and using Josephus as his reference calculated 13 million modii imported from Egypt and 27 million modii imported from North Africa. An estimate in between these two numbers would probably be most accurate, as an excessive supply of imported grain would be desirable in case grain was lost at sea or spoiled in a warehouse. Grain would have also came from Sicily and Sardinia though these regions were not as important as they had been in the Republic after the annexation of Egypt by Augustus. A passage from Pliny also gives locations of grain exportation to Rome from Gaul, the Chersonese, Cyprus and Spain. These are not the only provinces to ship grain but were probably depended on the most.
Politics and the grain supply
Throughout most of the Republican era, the care of the grain supply (cura annonae) was part of the aedile's duties. The annona was personified as a goddess, and the grain dole was distributed from the Temple of Ceres. As early as 440 BC, however, the Roman Senate may have appointed a special officer called the praefectus annonae with greatly extended powers. An emergency cura annonae was an important source of influence and power for Pompeius Magnus ("Pompey the Great") in his later career. Under the Principate, the position of praefectus annonae became permanent, while a range of privileges, including grants of citizenship and exemption from certain duties, were extended to ship-owners who signed contracts to transport grain to the city.
A large part of the city's supply was obtained through the free market. Prices in the city were invariably high, and merchants could count on making a profit. Grain was also collected as tax in kind from certain provinces; some of this was distributed to officials and soldiers and some was sold at market rates.
Grain supply was an important issue for the Gracchi, with the elder brother Tiberius Gracchus arguing that consolidation of Roman agricultural lands in the hands of a few had pushed landless Romans into the city, where they found poverty rather than employment. Under the grain law of Gaius Gracchus in 123 BC, a portion of the grain collected as revenue for the state was sold at a subsidised rate to citizens. The grain supply was a consistent plank in the popularist platform for political leaders who appealed to the plebs. But the unpopularity of these laws led to more conservative laws attempting to rein in the Gracchi reforms such as the lex Octavia and the lex Terentia Cassia.
The price of grain became a major issue when the Roman province of Sicily revolted repeatedly, thus pushing the price to unaffordable levels. Lowering grain prices became an important part of the political platform of the radical popularist Saturninus, who acquired the office of plebeian tribune an unusual three times.
In 58 BC, the patrician-turned-plebeian Clodius Pulcher advanced a popularist political agenda in his bid for the tribunate by offering free grain for the poor. The expense was considerable, and Julius Caesar later reformed the dole. Augustus considered abolishing it altogether, but instead reduced the number of the recipients to 200,000, and perhaps later 150,000.
The official responsible for the provision of the alimenta was the Curator alimentorum. During the empire, this post became an important bureaucratic position to be filled by the senatorial elite prior to achieving a consulship. The last known official to hold this post was Titus Flavius Postumius Quietus, probably during the early 270s.
Later emperors all used free or greatly subsidized grain to keep the populace fed. The political use of the grain supply along with gladiatorial games and other entertainments gave rise to the saying "Bread and circuses". As the empire continued, the annona became more complex. During the reign of Septimius Severus, olive oil was added to the distribution. During the reign of Aurelian, however, a major reorganization of the alimenta took place. It appears that he ceased to distribute free grain; instead, he issued free bread, and added salt, pork and wine to the dole, which was provided free or at a reduced cost. These measures were continued by successive emperors.
With the devaluation of currency in the course of the third century, the army was paid in rationed supplies (annonae) as well as in specie from the later third century, through a cumbrous administration of collection and redistribution. The role of the state in distributing the annona remained a central feature of its unity and power: "the cessation of this state function in the fifth century was a major factor leading to economic fragmentation, as was the end of the grain requisition for the city of Rome" Averil Cameron notes.
Grains from provinces were often sent back to Rome as tribune payments
- P. Garnsey, Famine and Food-Supply in the Greco-Roman World (Cambridge, 1988) P Sherman wallaby Sydney
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Garnsey, Peter (1988). Famine and Food Supply in the Graeco-Roman World: Response to Rise and Crisis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 231.
- Rickman, G.E. (1980). "The Grain Trade Under the Roman Empire". Memoirs from the American Academy in Rome 36: 264.
- Elder Pliny, trans. Jonathan Couch (1858). The Natural History, Book 18. University of California.
- If the statement made by Livy iv. 12, 13 is correct, which has been doubted.
- T.P. Wiseman, Remembering the Roman People (Oxford University Press, 2009) passim.
- Garnsey, Peter, Famine and Food Supply in the Graeco-Roman World: Response to Rise and Crisis. (Cambridge University Press, 1988)
- Southern, Pat, The Roman Empire from Severus to Constantine (2004), pg. 123. Note that Southern wrongly identifies this official as Postumius Varus.
- Southern, Pat, The Roman Empire from Severus to Constantine (2004), pg. 326
- Cameron, The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity AD 395-600, 1993:84.
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